Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger content to give key player Ben Smith some space
Ring-fencing Ben Smith out of the rugby loop during his sabbatical remains a priority for new Highlanders coach Aaron Mauger.
Having replaced previous boss Tony Brown, who is now assisting Jamie Joseph with the Japanese national team, Mauger has the task of binding together a group of players who will be in the unique situation - by New Zealand standards, anyway - of having to take orders from their third head coach in as many seasons.
Mauger is also aware he must give his most decorated player, 64-test veteran Smith, every opportunity to enjoy his time out out of the sport - his first chance to do since turning professional in 2009.
Fullback/wing Smith, the Highlanders co-captain since 2014, has been granted an extended leave of absence since the All Blacks played the Wallabies in Dunedin on August 26 and won't play again until next year's Super Rugby season.
At least Mauger, who worked as an assistant backs coach when the Crusaders All Blacks Richie McCaw and Dan Carter were granted sabbaticals for the majority of the 2013 and 2014 Super Rugby seasons, has some experience in terms of dealing such unique scenarios.
"It is probably more managing him to make sure he (Smith) uses the break to get away from footy and enjoy himself," Mauger said. "But being the man that he is, he wants to be connected.
"We will just try and keep that to a manageable level, let him enjoy himself and switch off as well. That was part of the reason for the sabbatical, to make sure he comes back really enthusiastic about his footy."
Mauger, who has inherited the majority of the 2017 squad for next season, has already recruited Canterbury's Glenn Delaney as his defence coach and appointing a new high performance and skills coach, following the resignation of Jon Preston, will also be part of his brief.
With the roster loaded with contracted players, Mauger is expected to either pluck players out of the Mitre 10 Cup or dig into the draft. Most coaches are expected to name up to 38 players in their squads.
"We are all but three or four spots (away from completing squad)," he confirmed. "And they will take a bit of working through. Obviously there are guys with options out there."
Lima Sopoaga is locked in as the top-ranked first five-eighth, with Fletcher Smith providing cover as his deputy. The search is on for a third No 10, suggested Mauger.
"We are probably looking to make sure we have got enough depth there and quality to get us through the season and make sure we manage the workload of those boys. That is probably an area we are looking at."
Another outside back, or midfielder offering utility value, are also on the wish-list.
Reminding Mauger of how fortunate he is to have quality at openside flanker would be folly.
All Blacks Sam Cane (Chiefs), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes) and Matt Todd (Crusaders) might offer their teams international experience, but the Highlanders have genuine depth in the position with James Lentjes, Dillon Hunt and Dan Pryor all rated highly by the new coach.
"We are pretty blessed in that position," Mauger confirmed. That assessment was backed-up by All Blacks coach Steve Hansen who recently said he may ask Lentjes and Hunt to join the national squad at training at some point. Those comments were made after Blues' flanker Blake Gibson was invited to practice with the squad several weeks ago, because Cane and Todd were injured.
The Highlanders host the Blues in their first competition match, expected to be in Dunedin, on February 23.